The Sessions – LFF Review

The Sessions

The Sessions is the intimate true story of a disabled man’s quest to lose his virginity. John Hawkes plays Mark a man paralysed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung for the majority of his day. While researching an article on the sex life of the disabled Mark is forced to consider his own status as a virgin. After consulting with his liberal priest (William H. Macy) Mark decides to hire a sex surrogate to… well… have sex with him. The sex surrogate in question is Cheryl (Helen Hunt) who has just one rule; they can only have six sessions.

For a film so centred around sex The Sessions is the furthest thing from smutty. We may well get a “brave” performance from Helen Hunt (TRANSLATION: You get to see upstairs AND downstairs) but the nudity in the film is so matter of fact and natural that it couldn’t possibly be seen as gratuitous. The sex scenes are tender, awkward, touching, and funny ranging from functional descriptions and embarrassing moments to what borders on the romantic. While this is not a love story the relationship that develops between Mark and Cheryl is infinitely more believable than anything you will find in the endlessly questionable Pretty Woman.

The Sessions is not a film about sex, it is a film about one man’s self discovery against the odds. At the same time The Sessions is a film about sex. And for once it is not one in which we are invited to laugh at bodily fluids and ogle augmented breasts. This is an adult film about sex. Not an adult film about sex. This is a grown-up film about sex. How refreshing. What is even more refreshing is that at no point is the morality of Cheryl’s profession brought into question. She may well have sex for money but that isn’t the point of the film so there is no sub-plot in which anyone has to come to terms with what she chooses to do for money.

The ending may be a little abrupt but in every other way The Sessions is flawless. You’ll never root so hard for someone else to have sex.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – LFF Review

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped an abusive cult, one where she was known as Marcy May, and has moved in with her estranged sister and brother-in-law. Back in civilised society Martha struggles to escape the memories of her time with the cult and live with people who do not share the cult’s values or lack of boundaries.

With his debut as both writer and director Sean Durkin has made an impressive film, confidently shot without any flashy gimmicks. Durkin is happy to set up a few simple shots for a scene, allowing the camera to move and re-frame where necessary, letting his script and actors showcase his talent.

Elizabeth Olsen is superb as the once confident young woman, brutalised by her time being subtly manipulated by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Too often we have to wait years for a fresh new talent to finally find the right film to showcase their skill; Olsen has found it right away. John Hawkes is wonderfully creepy as Patrick, showing that certain combination of charisma and manipulation needed to make people follow you to the dark side. Sarah Paulson too has a layered character to play as Martha’s sister Lucy, forced to choose between caring for her sister and protecting her own family from this disruptive force.

Flashbacks and present day are blended so well that there is still one scene we cannot place in one definitive time frame, Martha is struggling to make sense of her world so we must too. As Martha’s mind is sucked back to her time in the cult we can see the subtle changes in her character and physicality and just why she is finding it so hard to live with normal people once more.

With Martha Marcy May Marlene centred on a woman haunted by memories of a horrific period in her past I can’t help but draw comparisons to We Need to Talk About Kevin. When put side by side it is Martha which comes out on top, a much simpler film without any visual gimmicks. Martha is also the more traumatic, the tension is just as present as in Kevin but without ever getting a proper release.

The film left us reeling and tense, not wanting to head out into the dark night outside so it was a relief to have a Q&A with the cast and crew afterwards. They were a charming, humble bunch whose friendly energy helped to relax the audience again. Sadly most audiences will just be thrown trembling into the real world after the credits roll.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is near perfect, just a few moments where the tension almost became tedium before something would happen to jolt us back onto the edges of our seats.

Martha screens again at the London Film Festival today and on Monday, worth a look as tickets are still available, then is released in UK cinemas on 3rd February 2012.